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October 1, 2014

Interview with 'Game of Thrones' Author/Producer George R.R. Martin: Part 2

by Maureen Ryan, posted Aug 12th 2011 1:00PM
When my initial review of 'Game of Thrones,' which was decidedly mixed, appeared online, one of the responses I saw on the Internet amused and mildly irritated me. Some of the grumbling amounted to, "But what does she know -- she liked 'Spartacus'!"

It amused me because, as most critics do, I judge each show independently and on its own merits; if, by law, I am required to review expensive HBO series favorably and basic-cable shows unfavorably, well, I didn't get that memo. And I'm fully willing to admit (as are most of people who make 'Spartacus') that the first couple of episodes of that show aren't good. But if you watched the Starz show until at least the midpoint of the first season, it became a gripping saga that worked as an action-adventure story, a soapy melodrama and a well-constructed, emotionally compelling drama.

And hey, guess what? George R.R. Martin, the man who created the books on which HBO's 'Game of Thrones' is based, is also a fan of 'Spartacus'! I would say "Nyah nyah" or "Oh snap!" at this point, but I'm far too mature and evolved to do something like that. Much.

In any event, Martin and I talked about much more that our mutual affinity for the gladiator drama in Part 2 of our interview (Part 1 is here, by the way). We discussed magic, "comfort fiction" and his approach to the next book in his 'Song of Ice and Fire' series, among other things.

As was the case with Part 1 of the interview, it's best to have seen all of Season 1 of 'Game of Thrones' before reading this interview, which does not spoil anything that happens beyond Season 1 (or Book 1 of the novel series).

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Speaking of the new book, how does it feel to have the No. 1 book in so many countries?
It feels great. I can't say that this is actually true because I don't have any expertise, but my British publisher says it's the first time since the latest Harry Potter book that one book has been number one simultaneously in the entire English-speaking world. So that's pretty cool being number one in all those places.

That's definitely impressive.
And meanwhile, I also have the first 'Game of Thrones' [book] which is number one in mass market [paperback]. And the [book] series has been building all along which is great, but a lot of this is certainly due to the TV show. I have millions of new readers now who have seen the TV show and have gone back and are reading the books, and that's very gratifying. I do love the TV show and I think David and Dan are doing an amazing job, but the books are always going to be my first love. So the fact that we're getting new readers is for that amazing. And the synchronicity -- it really shows the power of television to reach out to the audience and to turn them on to books.

Oh, absolutely. It's great when people get involved in a series that really draws them in and gets them emotionally committed.
I hope that if we have a good long run and win a few Emmys, you know, get that critical respect, that we will see more fantasy and more epic fantasy on TV. You know how networks in particular are very imitative. If there's one genre that's a hit, then suddenly everybody wants that. So I'm hoping that works here. I'd love to see something like 'The Chronicles of Amber' [by Roger Zelazny] done as a [TV] series, or Scott Lynch's 'Locke Lamora' or the Patrick Rothfuss books. There are great epic fantasies out there by many people that would make perfect television series.

I yield to no one in my respect for Peter Jackson and his marvelous films of 'Lord of the Rings,' but in many ways, I think television is a better medium for this type of story than feature films are. Feature films have the gigantic budget, but television has really become a better vehicle for character drama. You know, movies for spectacle and television for character drama.

And what's interesting about your books is that in them, and then now in the television show as well, elements that can be considered "fantasy" are not get-out-of-jail-free cards for the storyteller or for the characters. If anything, these elements bring more complications and more danger and more difficulty.
As you'll see when you read Book 5, dragons are not an unadulterated blessing.

Well, that's the thing. I got this response a few times from people watching the show -- "I thought there would be more magic." And I said "Well, it's not about magic."
Well, each book has more magic. You get it from both sides. I had people saying in the early books, "Give [us] more magic." And now people who loved the early books are saying "Now there's too much magic. Why did they add all this magic? I liked it when there was no magic."

The writing of these books is obviously a long process for you. Are you excited to go back home and begin the sixth book?
Yeah, I am. I have a lot of things to do. I have short stories I promised people and anthologies I'm editing and we've got to get the ['Song of Ice and Fire'] Concordance book done. So I have a lot of stuff that's built up on my plate when I finish this [promotional tour]. But I hope to get all that cleared away fairly quickly and then have the decks cleared to go into 'Winds of Winter.' And hopefully, that one will not take as long as the last one did. But I make no promises. I've learned the folly of making promises or even things that people perceive as promises. Any sentence with a date in it, no matter how much I [put caveats in it], would qualify as saying "I hope, I wish." So there are no longer dates or anything. I'll finish it when I can. But yeah, I'm excited to get back to it.

As you sit down to write the sixth volume, do you think you'll approach anything differently? Would you be doing exactly what you would have done, whether the TV show existed or not?
Yeah. One of the things I've discussed is the Butterfly Effect. I'm sure you know the reference to 'The Sound of Thunder,' the classic Ray Bradbury short story where you step on a butterfly in the Pleistocene Era and it changes the whole current history when you go back in your time machine. The Butterfly Effect is at work in the books. When David and Dan make changes, and we talk about some of this, it does have a ripple effect in later seasons that may be larger than it appeared. For example, you know, we're going to see ... well, I don't want to give too much away if you write about this.

But, for example, the character Marillion. In the books, yes, Joffrey does give a singer a choice between his tongue and his fingers, it's just some anonymous singer. It's not Marillion, who remains in the Vale and sort of becomes Lysa's court singer and then later gets the blame for [certain events that happen there]. So David and Dan then changed that and they made Marillion [the singer who got his tongue cut out]. So when they get to the Vale they're going to have to figure that out.

And similarly, the scene where Drogo rips out the throat of Mago. A great scene. I love that. A wonderful addition. But Mago doesn't die in the books. He's still alive. He's out there and Dany said to him, "You will die screaming." But she hasn't delivered on that yet. So, you know, these kinds of divergences are going to creep in.

But they obviously stuck to the main things that happened in the first book. And you know, I think what the Ned death crystallized for some people was this idea that the story was different from what they had been expecting. And what I wrote in my review of the finale was that this is not the hero's journey, this is not a tale that will ultimately end up with resolution and catharsis in the traditional senses.

For me, the story is basically about people with incomplete information trying to make decisions and stay true to themselves and survive in a very tough, unpredictable world. People's allegiances and loyalties change as they evolve. And I think that's unsettling for some people. I think you're very canny about the story you are telling in the early going -- it seems like it's a familiar thing, but then it becomes something much darker. That gets some people even more deeply committed, but I think some people struggle with that. Do you encounter that kind of reaction much?
I think there are some readers who like ... I don't know how to say this, I don't mean to be insulting or anything, but I don't know ... [they want] the comfort factor. A lot of fiction follows very familiar patterns. And they like to read the familiar story. And maybe there are a few little wrinkles, but basically, here's the hero, here's the villain, here's the obstacle; "Oh, the hero's in trouble." "Oh, the hero gets out of trouble."

"Here's the wise figure that comes along and helps him."
Yeah. "Here's the sidekick who may or may not die." And when you diverge from that, you please some readers, as I have, but you outrage other readers. And I've had this all along in my books, right from the beginning. People have written me and said, "I have a hard job working down at the steel mill, and I come home to read and I don't come home to be upset and be made all depressed and cry and have characters that I love die." And OK, that person is looking for comfort fiction, they're not looking for me.

But there are thousands of books out there for that person and my books don't happen to be [among] them. I want to grab my reader by the neck and shake them up and take them to unfamiliar places. And I want them to be afraid for the characters they love just as we would be.

I mean, if somebody walked in the door right here with an automatic weapon and started killing people in this coffee shop, we would be terrified, you and I, and we wouldn't know who was going to live or who was going to die. But if we compare it to the movie and exactly the same thing happens, we know exactly who's going to die. The extras are going to die.

Maybe if it's early in the show, maybe I'm the lead and maybe my wife is going to die, and then I can spend the whole thing getting revenge. But I want to capture the real-life feeling of what that actually would be like, not the familiar Hollywood thing where, OK, no way the bullets are going to hit Harrison Ford, no matter how many are fired at him.

Yeah. So many movies and TV shows make the mistake of making characters un-killable and that's the worst mistake you can make. Because you're telling the audience over and over again, "There's no real stakes here, there's no real danger. Nobody will pay the ultimate price, fair or unfair, deserved or undeserved." And sometimes the price that's paid by people in your books is living, it's not dying.
Yes, that's true. And there's some dramatic examples of that in 'A Dance with Dragons.' There are several characters who wish they were dead actually or who are flirting with suicidal impulses or whatever. That's one of the things that I think 'Spartacus' has going for us. I got the feeling very early on in 'Spartacus' that no one was safe. Maybe Spartacus himself was safe, you know, since I knew the series was about him, and I knew he had to live as a slave through the whole thing which is what he's famous for.

But other gladiators, some of whom I cared about, I didn't know. Was Crixus going to die this episode? Next episode? Doctore? Any of the women, of course. The women were completely expendable or threatened. You never knew when one was going to be raped or sold down the river or killed. And you cared about these characters. So there was considerable suspense.

[Note: We then talked for a while about various 'Spartacus' moments and scenes (Martin is particularly fond of a pivotal scene between Lucretia and her father-in-law in 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena'), and we discussed what the new season of the Starz show might be like. Don't read on if you haven't seen 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' or 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.']

You know, there are real challenges going to come this [new] season. You said you don't know much Roman history?

I know some. I took Latin for four years, so I'm sure I did know it but I've forgotten a lot of it.
Well, for two seasons they built the entire show around the ludus and the gladiator combats. But now Spartacus has started the thing that he's famous for: the slave revolt. There's no more gladiatorial combats. The rest is all Spartacus and his men camping in the woods and other slaves joining them and Roman legions coming out. It's a series of battles. It's going to be interesting to see how they do the battles, you know? So are they going to do that? It's going to completely change the tenor of the show. It's like you're doing 'Treme' and suddenly the main character moves to Los Angeles.

For 'Sparty' fans: I talked a bit to the show's creator, Steven DeKnight, about those very issues here, and I'll have much more info on that show when it returns early next year.

And of course, if I come across any news on the second season of 'GoT' in coming months, I'll happily bring that your way as well (after my current vacation ends on Aug. 21, that is).


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